Tag Archives: Russian collusion

My thoughts on that memo

So, the long anticipated ‘memo’ detailing how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to endorse secret surveillance of one-time, very marginal, Trump foreign affairs advisor Carter Page, has been released. The key allegations are:

  • The DOJ and FBI based their application to the court on the so-called ‘dossier’ of salacious allegations about Trump assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
  • The dossier was commissioned by the Trump’s opponents in the Democratic party, and the person who put it together, Steele, admitted to being ‘passionate’ about preventing Trump being elected.
  • The DOJ and FBI failed to tell the court about the political motivations of those who commissioned and wrote the dossier.
  • The DOJ and FBI provided evidence which they said corroborated the dossier, but that evidence in fact also came from Steele – so, it wasn’t corroborating evidence at all.
  • Steele was in contact with the DOJ through a senior official, Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife worked for the company which commissioned Steele and which was engaged in the ‘cultivation of opposition research on Trump’.
  • The FBI eventually assessed the Steele dossier as ‘only minimally corroborated’.

What should we make of all this?

First, complaints by Democratic politicians and the FBI that releasing the memo somehow threatens national security have been shown to be entirely wrong. There is nothing in this which does anything other than threaten the reputation of the DOJ and FBI and indicate that the Trump collusion story originates in a decidedly dubious document.

Second, Republican hopes that this would be the big thing that brought the Russia investigation to an end have not been justified. There’s nothing here which is so enormously outrageous and so totally discredits the investigation that Trump will be able to stop it.

Third, the justification for spying on Page provided to the court by the DOJ and FBI appears to be the result of sloppy intelligence work. The fourth point above is a clear example of what is called ‘circular reporting’ – i.e. corroborating information by citing evidence which in fact comes from the same source as the supposed information.

Fourth, the credence given to the dossier was also poor intelligence work. A lot of the claims in it were quite extraordinary and in any case implied that Steele, a man who hadn’t even been to Russia for 20 years, somehow had access to the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. A greater degree of scepticism was warranted. The fact that such scepticism was lacking suggests either a) once again, sloppiness, or b) bias. Neither is good, though the first is probably preferable since the latter would imply that a decision to spy on what appears to be an entirely innocent American citizen was founded on political motives.

Fifth, the connections between Ohr, his wife, Steele, and opposition research suggest a rather too cozy relationship between DOJ and those seeking to undermine Trump. At the very least, there was what could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Sixth, in the end I don’t think that any of the above will matter. Peddlers of the collusion story will no doubt shake this off, pointing out that the memo is the work of Republican politicians and claiming that it is therefore biased and misleading. They will say that it leaves out important information, such as other reasons why the court may have given permission to spy on Page (I’m guessing that the so-called ‘Australian connection’ will be raised in this regard – i.e. information supposedly provided  by Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat, even though as the memo says, there was no connection between Page and Papadopoulos)

Given all that, I imagine that i) those believing that the Trump collusion story is made-up nonsense, and the President is a victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and their allies in the ‘deep state’ will feel vindicated; while ii) supporters of the collusion theory will see the release as further evidence that Republicans are just trying to divert attention because they have something to hide. The primary result, therefore, will simply be a hardening of positions on both sides and an accentuation of the already sharp divisions in American politics. In short, the show will go on.

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Colluding with Hitler

Russians sure do like to ‘collude’. According to the Washington Post, it’s in the blood. The following appeared in the Post a few days ago in an article by Thomas Weber of Aberdeen University entitled ‘What Russian collusion with Hitler reveals about interference in the 2016 election’:

After Adolf Hitler’s warriors had laid waste to the Soviet Union during World War II, the secret collusion of Russian nationalists with the German leader in the 1920s became an embarrassment. In the 70 years since Hitler’s defeat, Russian nationalists have done everything possible to conceal their onetime belief that he could aid them in undoing the October Revolution of 1917 and making Russia great again.

There are enough parallels here — collusion with Russia, an obsession with national greatness — to tempt people to entertain yet another ill-judged Hitler-Trump comparison.

Yet the real significance of Hitler’s secret Russian collusion does not lie in shedding light on the challenges President Trump poses to American democracy, but on the strategic challenge that Russia poses to the world. For there has been a line of continuity from the collusion of Russian nationalists with Hitler in the early 1920s, to Joseph Stalin’s secret pact with the Nazi leader in 1939, to President Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.

In all cases, Russia has ruthlessly pursued its self-interests with few concerns about the costs to human life and geopolitical repercussions. If it’s ostensibly good for Russia, it’s full steam ahead, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

… Russia’s many apologists in Europe and the U.S. should wake up to the common denominator visible here in Russian conduct past and present: a geopolitical pursuit of Russia’s national interests, marked by a disregard for human life and dignity.

Weber appears to be shocked that Russians would put the Russian national interest first. But that isn’t what’s most wrong about his article. As evidence of Russian ‘collusion’ with Adolf Hitler, Professor Weber produces just two facts – first, in 1923 Hitler met the wife of the exiled Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna, as well as one of Kirill’s aides, Nikolai Snessarev; and second, Kirill provided money to Hitler. Quite what the connection is between the exiled Grand Duke and Joseph Stalin and the Molotov-Ribbentrop plan isn’t explained. Nor is the link between Kirill and ‘Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.’ The link seems to consist of no more than: one time, a century ago, some obscure Russian most people have never heard of met a German who at the time wasn’t even very important; ergo Russians as a whole have a habit of ‘colluding’ with foreigners and we ought to be very afraid of them.

It’s shockingly bad logic. It’s also rather ahistorical. For sure, Grand Duke Kirill was quite pro-German. But a lot of inter-war Russian émigrés weren’t. The former White Army leader, General Pyotr Wrangel, for instance, stated that the Germans regarded Russians as fit only for dung for fertilizing the soil. He absolutely ruled out any form of co-ooperation with Germany. It is true that in the 1930s many White Russians hoped to be able to collaborate with Germany in the event that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. But others also opposed the idea of such collaboration. There was a bitter polemic in the émigré press between ‘defeatists’, who took the first line, and ‘defencists’, who took the second line. Most prominent among the defencists was another White general, Anton Denikin, who wrote that, ‘In the event that a foreign power invades Russia, with the aim of seizing Russian territory, our participation on its side is impermissible.’ Inter-war Russians weren’t all interested in working with Hitler.

In any event, Kirill was an isolated and unpopular figure among Russian émigrés. He in no way represented émigré opinion, and so shouldn’t be used as an example of what Russians of the time thought. Far more popular among émigrés in the 1920s was the former Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Unlike Kirill, Nikolai Nikolaevich was very anti-German. British military attaché Alfred Knox recounted how in 1914, the Grand Duke ‘told me how he hated the Germans because one could never trust them. … we must crush Germany once and for all … the German empire must cease to exist and be divided up into a group of states.’

Grand Duke and flags
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (seated centre): Note the French flag at the back, centre right.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich provides an example which utterly contradicts Weber’s statement that Russians only ever put their own interests first without regard for those of others. The Grand Duke was a fervent Francophile, who as Supreme Commander didn’t fly a Russian flag at his headquarters but did fly a French one (see picture above). In August 1914, the German Army sent most of its forces against France, leaving only a few to defend East Prussia against Russia. Despite the fact that the Russian Army had not fully mobilized, Nikolai Nikolaevich ordered his troops to invade East Prussia in order to try to persuade the Germans to divert forces away from France. The French military attaché, General Laguiche, telegraphed his Minister of War that, ‘The Supreme Commander of the Russian Army wanted to respond to France’s desires and remain faithful to the undertakings he made to our ambassador.’ The Russian Chief of Staff, General Ianushkevich, issued an order to the commander of the Russian North West Front, General Zhilinskii, to invade East Prussia, telling him: ‘Paying attention to the fact that Germany first declared war against us, and that France, as our ally, considered its duty to immediately support, we must, because of the same allied obligations, support the French.’

The Russian invasion of East Prussia ended in disaster, with the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenburg and the defeat of the Russian First Army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. But Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was unrepentant, telling Laguiche: ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies.’

Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich did one thing. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich did another. It makes no sense to draw some broad-sweeping conclusions about the Russian character from either one or the other. It’s true that some Russians collaborated with Hitler and said some nice things about him. But others didn’t, while you can find plenty of people from other countries who spoke positively of Hitler at one time or another (David Lloyd George, for instance, to use an example close to Professor Weber’s home). Russians pursue their national interests. But so do other countries, and Russians can also be willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends.

Here’s the thing. You can create just about any sort of thesis if all you do is take one example and imagine that it personifies some general truth. But it’s not good history.

 

Collusion

The investigation into suspected collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian government has claimed its first three victims: one (Paul Manafort) for completely unconnected money laundering charges, and two (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) for lying to investigators about things which were not themselves criminal, and which are therefore crimes which would never have happened had there never been an investigation. To date, the evidence of direct collusion between Trump and the Russians is looking a little thin, to say the least. Now, into this maelstrom steps Guardian reporter Luke Harding with his book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russian Helped Donald Trump Win.

Collusion spends over 300 pages insinuating that Trump is a long-standing agent of the Russian secret services, and hinting, without ever providing any firm evidence, that Trump and his team acted on orders from the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. I’ll be honest, and admit that I picked this book up expecting it to be a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and to be utterly unbalanced in its analysis, and in that sense I’m not an unbiased reader. At the same time, I was interested to see if Harding had come up with anything that everybody else had not, and was willing to give him a chance. I needn’t have bothered. For alas, my worst suspicions proved to be true, and then some.

collusion

Continue reading Collusion

First arrest in Russia scandal – for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of Ukraine!

The rumours, it appears, were true. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election, has brought charges against former Trump adviser Paul Manafort for conspiracy to launder money.

It seems bad for Trump, you might think. But, stop! Money laundering has nothing to do with Russian interference. Moreover, who was Manafort working for when he committed his alleged crime? Not Russia. No. Ukraine! For sure, it wasn’t the current Ukrainian government, but that of the supposed (but in reality not at all) ‘pro-Russian’ president, Viktor Yanukovich. But still, there’s no Russian connection here.

Maybe, the conspiracy theorists might claim, but Manafort will now surely spill the beans on Trump, the Russians, and all their his evil doings. As the BBC says, ‘Mr Manafort will be under growing pressure to co-operate with the Mueller investigation. If he offers up useful information about his time during the campaign, this could be just the first domino to fall.’ But if Manafort actually had any relevant information about Russian interference in the election, he’d have offered it up by now. In the past weeks, reports have suggested that Mueller was pressuring Manafort to tell all in return for some deal, but Manafort told Mueller that he couldn’t cut a deal because he didn’t know anything.

Having not seen the charge sheet, I can’t say for sure where the evidence to indict Manafort came from, but it seems likely to have been the data about payments from Yanukovich to Manafort provided by the current Ukrainian authorities during the US presidential campaign, data which led to Manafort resignation from Trump’s team at that time. In short, it derived from Ukrainian interference in the US election.

Russia-wise, it appears that so far Mueller has drawn a blank. All he’s managed to come up with is charging someone for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of the Ukrainian government. Perhaps everybody has been chasing the wrong target.

UPDATE: You can read the charge sheet against Manafort and co-defendant Richard Gates here. I found paragraph 19 interesting. It says:

MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions, and the Government and Ukraine. MANAFORT and GATES did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.

It’s an interesting outcome from an investigation set up to examine Russian interference in US politics.